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Ballymena’s most loyal fan hasn’t seen his team play in 40 years

Blind golf champion Drew Cochrane (81) refuses to let disability dampen his enthusiasm for beloved hometown side

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Drew Cochrane

Drew Cochrane

Drew Cochrane

Ballymena United supporter Drew Cochrane rarely misses his team’s matches, but he hasn’t actually seen them play for more than 40 years.

That’s because the 81-year-old, who was registered blind in 1980, has a genetic condition which also robbed a brother of his sight in his teens.

But Drew’s disability hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for his hometown club.

“I started following United as a 10-year-old boy when my father took me and my brother Raymond to a match at the Showgrounds,” he told Sunday Life.

“The bug bit me straight away. I’m still as passionate as I ever was.

“I was devastated about what happened to me. I thought that was me finished with football, but after a while I resolved that I wasn’t going to let my blindness define me.”

Drew had to give up work as a builder, but he became a golfing champion, travelling the world to compete in tournaments for blind people.

“But I have always loved my football,” he said. “At first, my brother Raymond, who died several years ago, took me to the matches and tried to give me a running commentary on what was happening on the pitch. But he often got so excited that he forgot all about me.

“Even so, I could visualise what was going on and I’m still doing that.”

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Drew in his golfing days

Drew in his golfing days

Drew in his golfing days

He now has a seat in the club’s directors’ box, where Jimmy McClean, his son Andrew and former referee Frank Hughes give him blow-by-blow accounts of the matches.

Drew, who’s a season ticket holder and a shareholder at Ballymena, laps up the atmosphere and the humour at the Showgrounds, where fans around him tend to watch what they say during games.

“A lot of supporters often shout at referees and linesmen to tell them that they’re blind, but that doesn’t happen so much when I’m about the place. Maybe it’s my white cane that makes them think twice,” he joked.

Drew gets as excited as anyone else during matches and revels in victories for his team.

“I can hold my own in post-match discussions even though I haven’t seen the games, which I judge on the commentary I hear and the reaction of the supporters,” he said.

Drew also supports Manchester United and has done since the 1958 Munich air disaster, but he once had a frightening experience of his own at the same German airport.

“On my way back from a trip to Austria, my plane had to take off from Munich in snowy and slushy conditions like Man United faced all those years ago. It brought back horrible memories,” he explained.

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OVERCOMING ADVERSITY: Drew Cochrane with some of the golf trophies he’s won over the years

OVERCOMING ADVERSITY: Drew Cochrane with some of the golf trophies he’s won over the years

Peter Morrison

OVERCOMING ADVERSITY: Drew Cochrane with some of the golf trophies he’s won over the years

Drew has much happier recollections of his years supporting Ballymena before he lost his sight.

During the 1950s, he saw the legendary John Charles playing for Leeds United in a friendly at the Showgrounds.

“He was centre half during the first half and centre forward after the interval. He scored a hat-trick,” Drew said.

“I also remember some great players and managers for United, like Alex Parker, the ex-Everton star who stood on the terraces beside us the day after he was sacked by Ballymena.

“Other heroes of mine were Geoff Twentyman, Alex McCrae, Norman Clarke, Dave Hickson and Eddie Russell, who scored for us in the 2-0 win in the 1958 cup final at the Oval against Linfield, who had Jackie Milburn in their line-up.”

He can rhyme off without hesitation the names of that cup-winning team, rated as one of the best in the club’s history, but he recalls other stars too.

“I remember one winger who was bow-legged. Watching him was like watching a food mixer,” said Drew, who dreams of Ballymena becoming league champions.

“We’ve lifted the cup a number of times, along with other trophies like the County Antrim Shield, but it would be fantastic if we could come out top in the league.”

Drew used to travel to Northern Ireland international games at Windsor Park with a group of friends on the back of a lorry.

Ex-Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington, a former Ballymena player, served his time as a builder with him before moving to England and carving out a successful football career.

Drew does not go to internationals anymore and instead contents himself with listening to commentaries of Northern Ireland and England games on the radio.

He wishes that today’s commentators would include more details for blind and visually impaired people.

“I like to know my side are playing from left to right or in the other direction,” Drew explained.

“I also like to be told what colours the teams are wearing so that I can get a picture in my mind’s eye.

Drew is a huge admirer of retired BBC commentator and former footballer Jackie Fullerton, who’s also a Ballymena United fan.

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LEGENDS: Drew is a big fan of Jackie Fullerton and David Jeffrey

LEGENDS: Drew is a big fan of Jackie Fullerton and David Jeffrey

LEGENDS: Drew is a big fan of Jackie Fullerton and David Jeffrey

“Jackie’s a superb commentator and he and I often have a bit of craic at the matches,” he said.

“He was also kind enough to write a foreword a few years ago for a book that I brought out about my life, particularly my golfing career.”

Drew is confident that Ballymena manager David Jeffrey can bring United more success, and the boss is also a big fan of Drew.

“Drew is a remarkable gentleman who has not let his impairment in any way restrict him from supporting the Sky Blues,” Mr Jeffrey said.

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CONFIDENT: Drew thinks David Jeffrey can bring United more success

CONFIDENT: Drew thinks David Jeffrey can bring United more success

Ross Glendinning PressEye

CONFIDENT: Drew thinks David Jeffrey can bring United more success

“He’s a dedicated and committed fan whose encouragement and backing I value immensely.”

Drew said: “I still get a lot of pleasure from Ballymena United and our supporters.

“If it’s a bad game, the fans will console me that I didn’t miss much. I [joke] I never see a good game either.”


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